Another META Eminent: Swati Dubey Dazzles, Even If For A Bit Too Long
What Is Jaipur In For?
As I reluctantly zero in (on the third try) on the best spot around this thrust stage at Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, two college girls follow my lead and find just enough space beside me for two best friends (which is not enough space for 2 strangers and a tad too much for 1 person). I am still not confident I made the right choice, and I don’t think I will satisfactorily pick a seat in a non-proscenium setting.
This is my second show at Rang Rajasthan Festival and I am keenly aware that the Jaipur audience pulls no punches. The girls giggle and gab away, disappointed in the bare-bone set-up. They express doubt in the capability of the show to give them appropriate value for their money. The space starts to fill up and they wonder out loud if “this Bhoomi is famous,” as we are soon house full.
This is the fourth staging of the play. Bhoomi is being staged by the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards-winning cast and crew. In 2019, this company – Samagam Rangmandal – staged Agarbatti. The excerpt of the show is as follows: “Agarbatti brings to life the aftermath of the Behmai massacre committed by Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi and her gang to avenge her gang rape by the upper-caste Thakur men of Behmai. But what about the widows of those 24 men who were massacred? In order to rehabilitate the widows of the massacred Thakurs, the government opens an incense stick (agarbatti) factory in the village.”
With a chilling narrative like that, it is hardly a surprise that the team brought home 4 META awards – Best Original Script (Ashish Pathak), Best Director (Swati Dubey), Best Actor (Female) (Rukmini Sircar), and Best Light Design (Swati Dubey); among many more nominations.
I am fairly confident that the girls are about to stretch the rupee beyond its stunted powers.
Who Needs Arjuna Anyway?
In Vanparva of Mahabharata, before any man’s epic battle, a most fascinating story – Bhoomi – begins. The story resembles Rabindranath Tagore’s 1913 one-act play Chitra. Both stories, in their centrality around a woman – the warrior princess Chitrangda – and in their subversive nonchalance of Pandu-son Arjuna, find a narrative that is fresh and approachable even today.
In this universe, constructed by Ashish Pathak, King Prabhanjan of Manipur (previously known as Kangla) is granted one child in every generation and is instructed to hand over the reins of the kingdom to that offspring by the phallic lord Shiva. Down the lineage, Chitravahana who is a Mahabharata contemporary finds himself in fathership to a daughter – Chitrangda – who as per the law of the land is to be the ruler of her people. She meets Arjuna as he is on his friendship journey, passing through Nagloka to the land of Kangla. They meet as warriors, fall in love as warriors, and marry one another as warriors.
What I love to note about this show is that the conclusion to let daughters inherit Kangla is actually driven by a beating Prabhanjan receives from Ma Devi, instead of the son-fruit from Shiva he had originally come to Kailash for. While the point is made heavy-handedly (pun intended) it sets the tone for what is to come. First, there will be physical combat. Second, this is not your middle-school, every-man’s epic. This is Chitrangda’s Mahabharata.
To a nervous viewer, such as myself, it is clear that ill fate is to befall this union of Chitra and Arjuna. A royal warrior, so far from his kingdom that is under siege, must always be a royal warrior first. This seems to be the main takeaway Arjuna chooses from his conversations with Krishna, and decides that he must return to Hastinapura to his brothers without his newly betrothed. He explains it as “just politics” to Chitra who with a heavy heart and a steady mind banishes him to never return even as she carries his son.
So return Arjuna does not. Chitra waits for his invitation to join him in Hastinapura. Their son is born. Babruvahan turns 20. This is when the three are cosmically united once again under bloody and hostile conditions when the horse of the Ashwamedha Yagya which was bound to define the Pandava’s kingdom is intercepted by Babruvahan. The three warriors are forced face to face. Silence breaks and turns into questions. Babruvahan is presented with Arjuna’s bow – Gandiva, and a choice. To rule and to truly swear in as Arjuna’s son. Or, to stay in Kangla with his mother and serve the land he was born on. He breaks Gandiva. He chooses his mother. He chooses bhoomi.
How Far Is Kangla?
Bhoomi’s production did something old school, something revolutionary in times of fast media, and faster consumption. If you’re wondering what that is, it is research. Spending time in the laboratory. And, boy, does it show.
A little bit of digging led to me understand that the actors, the writer, and the director travelled to Imphal to learn Thang-Ta, an ancient traditional art form of Manipur in the Northeast. Ashish Pathak, the director of Samagam Rangmandal based in Jabalpur, said it was necessary for the artists to undergo training in martial arts to act like warriors.
Thang-Ta, also called Huyen Langlon, also called ‘The Art of the Sword and Spear’ is the traditional martial art that integrates various external weapons – sword, spear, dagger, etc., with an internal practice of physical control through soft movements coordinated with rhythms of breathing.
This enabled them to safely participate in the swift sword and spear play that the audience witnesses in JKK. At one point I was sure that an actor would lose control and his spear would find its way into my eyeballs and the careful curation of my spot around the stage would prove detrimental. However, not for a minute did any actor falter when it came to their weapons.
Along with Thang-Ta, the music and some dialogues were also borrowed from the Manipuri language which drove the authentic connection of the audience to the subject matter much higher, even if comprehension of the dialogues in a city like Jaipur was compromised.
Who Set The Stage On Smell?
“Ansoon ke sang laut aana tum (when the tears come, please return),” launches Som Thakur’s poem, sung in chorus – hauntingly, beautifully as Chitra allows herself to bid goodbye to Arjuna who is headed toward the biggest war the world has seen. There are tears being held as the music, led by hand-held broad drums, chimes, and plates begin to swell. The percussions throughout the show add a powerful and primal element, further heightening the overall sense of drama and intensity.
Bhoomi is an incredibly unique and innovative show in the way it incorporates a range of sensory experiences to create a truly immersive performance. The live fire using tinder, oil, and wick for smell at multiple punctuations in the show was particularly impressive. Adding another dimension to the stage is to be revered in my books.
The lighting design puts the props on the map. The use of “headlights”, which really are just torches pinned dependably on the heads of the actors, managed to bring the danger of the jungles and the wildness of its animals forth with finesse. The combination of the live fire and carefully crafted lighting created a dynamic and easily-changing landscape that kept the audience on their toes.
“I have never seen anything like it before,” mumbles one college girl to another between tears as we all stand right up from the perched position to deliver a standing ovation. The ticket cost has been declared appropriate by a key demographic in today’s theatre-going audience. I feel a sense of incomprehensible pride in knowing that these college girls – reluctant, jovial, unassuming – will be returning to the theatre.
If I were to disclose liberally, there were a few light fades where I was sure the show was over, and I was ready to bolt right up even then. Yet 90 minutes later (15 minutes too many in this viewer’s opinion), the ability to stand up seems alien and the applause seems well-earned.
The cast seems to be a little teary-eyed too which does a great job of reassuring the viewers that they are not alone in the awe, in the jubilation, in this very dramatic act of being human.
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Nupur Saraswat is an international stage artist and a writer. She is the creator of the art form Theatrical Poetry. Through her work she explores the unbounded personal liberties as the ultimate beckoning of any social movement. She creates, directs, and performs shows that have been hailed as "urgent and engaging". She is currently touring with her show 'Live.Love.Loaf. An investigation into who gets to loiter' across Asia.